Commentators and pundits on Britain's flagship football shows make for awkward viewing, writes Simon Tyers
One could make a list of the things Gary Lineker is really good at – goalscoring, smiling stoically through undignified photo opportunities, keeping Mark Lawrenson awake and being a popular subject of pub conversations that begin "a mate of mine's friend works for a paper and he reckons…" You would not necessarily put lightning-fast improvisation skills high in the list.
What was really notable about his reaction to the Match of the Day autocue going down as he introduced West Brom v Norwich was that he had already negotiated the tricky statistical stuff that is thrown in to fill time while the next game's tape is prepared. With only the home ground and commentator to go, he suddenly stopped and stared at the camera for a fatal few seconds like a man whose recurring nightmare of standing in front of the UN assembly while dressed as Marilyn Monroe had suddenly come true. At least he took the gentleman's way out and was honest, admitting "something's gone wrong with the Autocue at this stage, which is not really what you want to happen in the middle of a programme", before adding "but let's go to that game now" without further pause.
The experience, which cannot have lasted longer than five seconds, still threw him so much that commentator Conor McNamara – possibly via Lineker's interpretation of a director shouting the name down his earpiece – became Colin MacMagara. He re-recorded the link for the Sunday morning repeat, taking good care over the pronunciation as if nothing untoward had happened. But the frailty of the modern presenter had been long exposed. A printed A4 sheet as a simple backup would have solved everything.
It had been a strangely self-aware edition of the programme. Before Blackburn v Fulham, Lineker mentioned the lack of goalless draws in games between the two teams, then commented: "I suppose you know there were goals in this game, otherwise they wouldn't be on third." In doing so a flaw of the programme's format was highlighted. Ordering games by entertainment value ruins the notion that you can watch with no hint of what is to come – something that became especially clear the following week, when Chelsea were on last. Liverpool fans must be neuro-linguistically programmed to never turn on before 11pm, such is the likelihood that they are going to end up in mid-show mediocrity, always preceded by some faux-apologetic quip towards Alan Hansen.
The real studio pyrotechnics came at the end of the programme and involved Alan Shearer hinting there may be a shrewd tactical analyst tucked away somewhere in his subconscious. When tackling comes up as a topic, there is usually condemnation, followed by reference to "common sense", then demands for consistency from referees.
This time, however, the punditry team decided to take the issue head on. In response to Lineker pointing out that consistency is practically impossible, Shearer – who had picked up a pen purely to waggle it in the style perfected by ministers on Question Time – used the moments when Gary and Alan were not shouting over him to provide analysis of a montage of quickly cut tackles. He had lost track before the tape was halfway through and resorted to naming the players involved without detailing which of the tackles were dangerous and which were not, like he was supposed to. As a piece of expert analysis it failed miserably. But as an example of a man babbling because there is half a minute left to fill and he is not sure what he is supposed to say, it worked wonderfully well.
In the decade and a half or so that British TV has taken an interest, the Africa Cup of Nations has developed its own common imagery. The titles for ITV4's coverage feature more close-ups of facepainted fans engaged in jumping up and down than football action. These images play over what sounds like a group of tribal drummers recorded outside the fire exit of a provincial club-night circa 1994. Back when ITV had more regular football, their synth workout themes were mocked regularly. Compared to this, and the ragged mess of landfill indie that opens their FA Cup coverage, those seem like halcyon days.
ITV4 had to blank out the time from the score display, making it seem like they have recorded the live games on Eurosport, rather than shared the broadcast. They have at least thrown significant resources at their coverage, with Matt Smith and his sidekick pundit perched next to a huge and almost entirely useless video screen. The best commentators are seconded to the highlights. This left Peter Drury to claim Gabon's opening victory ("Libreville is partiesville!") was the country's "greatest day" – one in the eye for the independence movement. Someone should really have had a word with him regarding unfortunate and potentially scarring mental imagery before he called Didier Drogba "the chief elephant".
From WSC 301 March 2012